9 07 2009

Today’s Globe and Mail has a story on the controversy surrounding the decision of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Protestant, to take communion in a Roman Catholic church in New Brunswick. There were initial reports that Harper discarded the wafer he had received from the priest. It has now been confirmed that Harper swallowed a communion wafer. However, this is also a problem, for Catholic Church says that as a Protestant, he should not have done so.  Harper was attending the funeral of former Governor General Romeo Lebanc and decided to eat the wafer as a sign of respect.

Some may dismiss this controversy as a tempest in a tea pot. This story is interesting to me as a historian because it shows that the Catholic-Protestant split still has relevance in Canadian politics despite the fact Canada has become a profoundly secular country. While not quite as low as the ones found in continental European countries, church attendance rates in Canada are a fraction of what they were in the 1940s and much lower than in the United States. See here and here.   As Canadians have become less religious, the old division between Catholics and Protestants, Orangemen and ultramontanes, has ceased to be relevant in the way it was at, say, the time of the Manitoba Schools controversy. (The Canadian Orange Order, by the way, is still active, but just barely. See here).

Most Canadians today describe themselves as Christian but rarely attend church services, save perhaps on Christmas Eve. Some might argue that the real division today is between the minority of Canadians who are actively religious (many of whom are non-Christian immigrants) and the majority who are not. However, for reasons that are debated by political scientists, Roman Catholics still vote Liberal in disproportionate numbers. They still don’t trust the Conservatives.